Recyclable and Sustainable Stainless Steel
Since 1915 when stainless steel was first introduced, stainless steel has been selected for countless applications across a wide array of industries due to its excellent mechanical and corrosion properties. Now, as more and more emphasis is placed on choosing materials that are sustainable, stainless steel is also gaining significant recognition due to its outstanding environmental properties. Stainless steel is 100% recyclable, is typically able to meet the lifetime requirements for a project, and has outstanding end of life recapture rates. In addition, it is important to recognize that while difficult choices must often be made between implementing green solutions and implementing cost effective solutions, stainless steel solutions frequently offer the luxury of providing both.
Recyclable Stainless Steel
Stainless Steel is 100% recyclable, with no degradation. The process for recycling stainless steel is identical to the process for producing stainless steel. Furthermore, stainless steel is made up of many raw materials, including iron, nickel, chromium, and molybdenum, which are in high demand. All of these factors combine to make it very cost effective to recycle stainless steel, and have consequently, led to extremely high recapture rates. A recent study by the International Stainless Steel Forum (ISSF) determined that about 92% of the stainless steel used in architecture, building and construction applications around the world is recaptured and recycled at the end of service.
In 2002, the ISSF estimated the typical recycled content of stainless steels at about 60%. In some cases this is higher. The Specialty Steel Industry of North America (SSINA) states that 300 series stainless steels produced in North America have a post-consumer recycled content of 75 to 85%. While these numbers are very good, it is important to note the reason that they are not even higher. Stainless steel tends to have a long lifetime in most applications. Also, the demand for stainless steel is higher today than in the past. Thus, despite the high recapture rates for stainless steel, there is just not enough end of life stainless steel in the current pipeline to keep up with today’s production demands.i This is an excellent problem to have, and helps ensure that new stainless steel that goes into production today will be recycled in the future.
Sustainable Stainless Steel
In addition to having an excellent track record for recyclability and end of life recapture rates, stainless steel also meets another important criteria of a sustainable material. If the right stainless steel is selected to match the corrosion conditions of the environment, stainless steel can typically meet the lifetime needs of a project. While other materials may lose effectiveness over time, stainless steel can retain both functionality and appearance over extended lengths of time. The Empire State Building (1931) is an excellent example that demonstrates the exceptional long term performance and low cost effectiveness of stainless steel architecture. This building has been exposed to heavy pollution for most its existence, has had very minimal cleaning, and yet the stainless steel is still considered to be in excellent condition[iii]. Although stainless steel has only been in production for about 80 years, and so data is not available that goes beyond that, theoretically stainless steel should be able to last centuries when properly selected.
Stainless Steel – A Sustainable and Economical Choice
It is particularly exciting to consider that some of the same factors that contribute to making stainless steel an excellent environmental choice, can also lead to making it an excellent economical choice, especially when considering the lifetime costs of a project. As noted earlier, as long as the appropriate stainless steel is chosen to meet the corrosion conditions of a particular application, a stainless steel design can typically last the lifetime of a project. This, in turn, raises the value of an implementation as compared to materials that do not have as long of a life span. In addition, the appropriate stainless steel for an industrial project can lead to less lifetime maintenance and inspection costs, along with less production downtime costs. In the case of architectural projects, the right stainless steel can hold up to some of the worst environments, and still retain its beauty over time. This can reduce lifetime painting and cleaning expenditures that may be needed as compared to alternative materials. Furthermore, stainless steel usage contributes to LEED’s certification, which helps increase the value of a project. Finally, at the end of life for a project, the remaining stainless steel has high scrap value.
It is interesting to note that as society and governments are becoming more conscious of environmental and economic factors, the growth in the use of stainless steel has been the highest of any material in the world.[iv] This helps highlight a growing amount of awareness in regards to how to make responsible decisions when it comes to material selection. Ideally, the stainless steel industry, together with the green industry, will continue to educate designers, architects and consumers on the benefits of stainless steel, so as to ensure that this trend continues.
 “SSINA: Stainless Steel: About.” SSINA: Specialty Steel Industry of North America. SSINA. Web. 07 Oct. 2011. http://www.ssina.com/sustainability/.
 “Sustainability.” IMOA: International Molybdenum Association. Stainless Steel Architecture, Stainless Swimming Pool Design, Stainless Water Piping. International Molybdenum Association. Web. 07 Oct. 2011. http://www.imoa.info/moly_uses/moly_grade_stainless_steels/architecture/sustainability.php.
 Houska, Catherine, P.G. Stone, and David J. Cochrane. “Timeless Stainless Architecture.” Timeless Stainless Architecture. Nickel Development Institute, Jan. 2002. Web. Oct. 2011
 “Desalination in Stainless Steel: a Sustainable Solution for the Purification of Salt Water.” Www.worldstainless.org. International Stainless Steel Forum, 2010. Web. Oct. 2011.